Time like this makes me treasure the fact that I write book summary, even when I feel lazy not to.
Some compare Alena to Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. If not for a book summary I have written last year, I would not be able to recall the connection. The commonality is striking (retrospectively speaking). Alena is dead yet her absence persists throughout the book, so is Rebecca. The narrators in both novels are female and are nameless. Nauquasset is a cutting edge art museum by the sea while Manderley is an estate – both dominate the respective stories. And then in Alena, there is Bernard who owns the museum and in Rebecca, Max.
Similarity between the two novels aside, looking at Alena alone, it is a book that engages me from beginning to end. It starts off with the narrator and Bernard running a little gallery in Russian Hill in present days. An extract taken from her dream last evening.
There I stood on the edge of the road, blue-black asphalt holding the heat. I could smell the tar melting, smell the pines and the brine of the sea, the restless, pungent, ever-present sea, primordial source of life and cause of so much death: floods and riptides, shipwrecks and suicides.
It is a rather unusual way to describe the sea. Throughout her dream, the contrast between life and death cannot be more obvious. In fact, this very first chapter sets the tone for the entire book. This very extract sums up where the entire book is heading!
As a reader, immediately I am hooked onto the narrator’s character as she traces her past starting as an assistant curator. How she traveled to Venice with a boss she disliked and in Venice, she met Bernard. There, she was offered a job as the chef curator in Nauquasset replacing Alena who has gone missing for two years, presumed dead.
I wanted to understand him – to understand Bernard. I felt connected to him by a bright thread, yet we could not have been more different. He was rick and I was poor. He knew everyone and everything, and I knew no one and nothing. What was I doing with him here in a restaurant in Padua? Why had he asked me? Was it pity? Whimsy? A game? What did he see when he looked at me? What did I look like? He could have chosen anyone. He’d had Alena. And now he had me.
Her relationship with Bernard is complex. At first, it smells romance, or a kind of strong adoration from the narrator’s perspective. Alena appears to have played big role in Bernard’s life. But what is it? Throughout the book, the narrator relentlessly trying to find out who Alena was from the people around her – even though almost everyone thinks that she is inadequate, as compares to Alena. How long until my bodily presence had half the substance her absence did? – lamented the narrator.
Storytelling aside, I enjoy reading Rachel Pastan’s writing style. Here is how she describes Nauquasset (which means ‘crown of the sea’ in Wampanoag) the first time – not a distorted version from the narrator’s dream at the beginning of the book but as it is.
The deep azure expanse was flecked and crested with white, and long streaks of gauzy pink cloud floated across the blazing sun, which just touched the rim of the water. A golden road stretched straight across the deepening blue, the near end apparently just below the bluff we were approaching, so that it seemed as though, if we hurried, we could take a quick stroll across the glittering surface toward the sun before it dropped out of sight. My heart bloomed in my chest, beating hard against the lattice of bone, as it had bloomed in the hot Uffizi as we stood before Botticelli’s Venus on her shell. And there, spread like a mantle across the shoulder of the bluff, the long silvered shape of the museum rose out of the sea of grass like the breaching back of a whale. Nauquasset.
The writer must have done much research on fine art. All the objects are described so beautifully as though I am seeing the art from the eyes of a curator. There is never a dull moment be it as she describing even the most mundane items like below or unfolding the mystery of who Alena was and what has happened to her.
I held the pan up. “Hungry?” I didn’t expect him to accept, but he did. I got out a second plate, beige with a brick-red border. The one already on the table was yellow with a design of poppies. both of them were ugly, though the yellow one seemed to be trying not to be, while the other didn’t seem to care. Which was worse?
While I may not fully recall what kind of person the narrator of Rebecca is, the narrator of this book turns out to be a smart woman with sharp eyes for details, someone who exhibits loyalty and with a kind heart. This book does not end where the book begins. So there is a part of me still wondering what has happened as the story ends.